April 29, 2011

Words of the Month - Who Cares?

I've got no pictures that are relevant to this post,
so instead here's an epimedium, because they're just
starting to bloom in our yard this morning.
        A couple of weeks ago we had a Nydam Family Movie Event and watched the "Series of Unfortunate Events" movie.  In it the unfortunate (and somewhat nutso) Aunt Josephine is thrown to the carnivorous leeches for an ill-timed quibble about the villain's grammar.  It's true that a precise knowledge of Correct English is used earlier to send and decode an important secret letter, but on the whole the movie's message is all too clear: no one likes  someone who's too picky about grammar.  Alas, I must confess that I may have a leech-infested end in store for me, since I do like proper use of the English language.  And any leeches who read this blog are sure to be smacking their lips (if leeches have lips), because today I will be complaining about the frequent confusion of this month's words.

uninterested - having no feeling of interest, indifferent… in other words, you just
                          don't care

disinterested - unbiased by personal advantage… in other words, impartial

ambivalent - uncertain or fluctuating because of a simultaneous desire to do two
                          opposite things… in other words, you may care very much, but you
                          sympathize with the arguments for both sides of an issue

        As a prescriptivist I find myself infuriated when people use the latter two words as synonyms of the first.  Each of these words has a very clear, very distinct, and very useful meaning, and to muddle them up makes them all meaningless.  When people are prone to misusing a word, then you can never be sure what anyone means by it, and the word loses all power.
        As a descriptivist, however, I have to admit that this is not a case of vile modern ignorance dragging the language down from a state of perfection.  The entire history of the first two words, at least, has been muddy.  Right from its early seventeenth century beginnings the word disinterested (and disinterest) has been used to mean both "indifferent" and "impartial."  Uninterested, on the other hand, which appeared about a quarter of a century later, began with the "unbiased, impartial" meaning.  It was not until the late eighteenth century that it had come to mean "unconcerned, indifferent," and its earlier meaning had become obsolete.  So these two annoyingly closely-related words somehow traded meanings over time, although disinterested clearly never entirely lost its "indifferent" usage, however much it bugs me to hear it used that way.
        At least ambivalent is really perfectly clear.  It was coined by psychologist Eugen Bleuler in 1910 from the Latin roots ambi - "both" and valentia - "strength" in order to describe conflicted feelings.  My prescriptivist self can declare without any qualms that to use this word to say you don't care is just plain out-and-out unequivocally wrong!
        (Oh no!  Are those leeches I see squirming voraciously toward me???)

[Picture: Epimedium, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006.]


  1. Just found your blog and what a great first post to read. fYI, I love Mary Azarian's work, especially in black and white. Thanks for the post devoted to her.

  2. Hello, BruttiBuoni. Glad you found me, and welcome!

  3. Attack of the Leeches? Do I see a block print in your future?

  4. I admit that I don't dislike leeches as much as I dislike ticks, but still...